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Op Ed: Baylor’s Kenneth Starr – A step backward to the future?

As is the case for most, my senior year in high school some 15 years ago, was full of excitement. While my primary school years wound to a close, I began to deliberate my next step and consider the numerous universities I had applied to.

Did I want to go to NYU and enjoy the bright lights and glamour of New York City, head out west to USC, or did I want to attend Tulane University, in the city of New Orleans where my father grew up?

I instead chose Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist institution located in Waco, Texas. It wasn’t the school’s religious affiliation that drew me to the university; in fact, it was far from it. As a Methodist, I was intrigued by the deep history of the school in relation to the founding of the great state of Texas. The roots of Baylor take it back to 1841, when 35 delegates to the Union Baptist Association decided to found a Baptist university in Texas, later chartered by the Republic of Texas in 1845.

Baylor alum, many of whom I admired for remaining steadfast to their convictions when times were tough, also captivated me – country great Willie Nelson; the spitfire of a Texas governor Ann Richards; famed rancher and oilman, and Fort Worth philanthropist Sid W. Richardson; and Mike Singletary, NFL Hall of Famer and current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

However, it was my family’s history at Baylor that led me to my final choice. My grandmother and father had attended Baylor, my great-uncle (and namesake) had spent a portion of his childhood years at Baylor, and my step-sister attended as well. I was proud to become one of the few third generation Baylorites.

Unfortunately, that sense of pride has waned over the years, as I’ve realized Baylor continues to regress and become more discriminatory.

It was only a year ago when I realized I was no longer receiving alumni materials and called Baylor to inquire as to the reason. The perky woman couldn’t have been nicer at the beginning of the call, but returned to the phone after looking up my information to state that they’d learned I “was involved in a gay rights organization, a lifestyle incongruent to the mission of the university, and they would no longer send me information.”

So now I (well my mother) - who’d spent all of this money to attend this private institution - was left out in the cold.

My interaction with this woman further instilled in me the notion that Baylor had lost its focus, a sentiment expressed publicly by many alumni over the past decade; especially this past year, as Baylor sought to eliminate the independent Baylor Alumni Association, in favor of an in-house alumni relations department, whose "message" the university could control.

The school, consistently ranked among the top Tier 1 schools, has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as having the 12th best engineering program, the 38th best undergraduate business program, and the 14th best entrepreneurship program.

A decade of turmoil, however, which included the firing of two presidents, and the 2003 NCAA scandal involving the death of basketball player Patrick Dennehy, have seemed to overshadow Baylor’s educational accomplishments.

Then just yesterday, I awoke to an inbox full of emails and Facebook messages from former classmates, each upset that Kenneth Starr was to be appointed the 14th President of Baylor University.

This had to be some sort of sick joke. Surely this man, the current lead counsel in the Proposition 8 defense before the California Supreme Court - the proposition that I along with many of my friends have worked so tirelessly to have repealed - wasn’t going to become the newly elected president of my alma mater.

However, after a brief phone call to a former Baylor regent, the news was confirmed.

Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation of the Whitewater land deal and Monica Lewinsky scandal led to former President Bill Clinton's impeachment, will mostly likely further divide the already uneasy alumni. These past few months the Baylor Regents have stated they wish to bring in a president that can calm the recent division and help propel the university forward; yet they’ve done just the opposite.

More troubling is that the hiring of Starr is indicative of the mindset of the entire Baylor administration, one which seems to condone discrimination.

With the hiring of Starr as its new president, Baylor now risks falling into the same category as Liberty University or Oral Roberts University. These two institutions are normally cited for their prejudiced viewpoints instead of their educational endeavors.

As for this Baylorite, my contributions will now go to TCU in honor of my mother, as my sense of loyalty to an institution that has meant so much to my family, is mostly gone.

Baylor has become an embarrassment, something that I in the past have had to defend during interviews for employment. The benefits of going to Baylor came from the relationships I formed with individuals I still hold dear today, and the challenges Baylor posed to my beliefs and values. Because of these very challenges, I’m better prepared to promote and defend civil rights, knowing the possible objections upfront from those with narrow-minded viewpoints.

A. Latham Staples is the founder and C.E.O of the Empowering Spirits Foundation, a national LGBT grassroots based civil rights organization based in San Diego, CA. Staples and his husband were one of the first same-sex couples to legally wed in California. After the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage to be between only a man and a woman, he sold A. Latham Staples & Associates, a healthcare firm, to focus solely on civil rights issues. Staples has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Political Science from the Honors College at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.